Dispatch № 66: Smooth Pursuit

Experimental panoramic images taken from a moving train
Experimental panoramic images taken from a moving train

Riding into Tokyo on a commuter train, looking out the window and unable to move, the amount of information streaming past is impossible to digest in its entirety. It must be reduced to something more manageable, either in broad and blurry generalities or in sharp-edged shards broken off and waylaid for a fraction of a second, eyes tracking and holding their target for inspection as it speeds past, right up until it drops out of view.

The latter, done deliberately, reveals details otherwise easily missed. A repeating set of ocular movements, enabling attention to be paid to details plucked out of the long, continuous ribbon of velocity-muddled urban sprawl.

Fixate, pursue, release.
Fixate, pursue, release.
Fixate, pursue, release.

When the observed object moves into the visual periphery, both oculi pivot back toward their origin, lateral and medial recti taking turns rotating both eyes in unison, going back and forth with each pursued object, following and resetting.

Travelling at 120 kilometers per hour, the difficulty of tracking targets and the acuity of observation vary based on their distance from the observer.

Closer: finer detail to observe, but rocketing past at speeds that challenge one’s ability to track quickly enough.

Farther: easier to track, but with scenes reduced to simpler gesture and form by the distance.

Regardless of distance, one can only keep this up for a limited time before the eyes and attention tire in tandem and return to a more passive mode of observation. Eyes locked straight ahead and focused at a middle distance, the mind taking a step back to observe on more passive terms.

The details one notices on any given journey are fairly arbitrary, and new additions to the observational library come with every repetition. So very many things to see.

Tents in vacant lots. A burnt-out building next to a daycare. A strange little playground under a highway overpass. A semi-abstract but anatomically correct painting of a woman on the back wall of a nightclub. Long-dead neon signs from businesses that disappeared decades ago. A disconcertingly large rocket replica outside of an office building. A defunct high school engulfed in vines.

Over time, stacks of these fragments string together and hang upon the backdrop from which they were extracted. The observer winds up with a mix of general and specific observations that combine into a strange multilayered understanding of the margins of the city bordering the tracks.

It is an understanding at once streaked and splintered, near and far, day and night. It is as broken as it is continuous. As prosaic as it is peculiar.

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David R Munson

David R Munson

Photographer, essayist, wanderer, weirdo. Everything is interesting if you give it an honest chance to be.

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